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Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany: All set for Minsk

Germany's foreign minister says plans for Wednesday’s summit on Ukraine have so far coalesced. Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also urged Russia and Ukraine to seize the chance to negotiate.

Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko, Russia's Vladimir Putin, France's Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Wednesday in Minsk to negotiate an end to 10 months of fighting that have killed more than 5,300 people. Germany's foreign ministry also announced talks Tuesday evening in Minsk to pave the way for Wednesday's summit of leaders.

"There are many open questions remaining, which must be resolved before the start of the summit in Minsk," Steinmeier said during a press conference with his Greek counterpart.

As leaders press for a solution to the fighting, both sides claim to have made significant gains on the ground. Twenty-three died Tuesday, including at least eight civilians. A total of 63 people, including 32 government soldiers, were wounded, and, according to regional police, Soviet-era Smerch rockets hit the Ukrainian army's eastern headquarters in Kramatorsk (pictured), though the separatists denied firing them.

'Our common interest'

The conflict in Ukraine has opened rifts within Europe and shaken the idea of an unshakeable transatlantic bond. Hollande said he remained uncertain ahead of his planned meeting on Wednesday in Minsk with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts and Chancellor Merkel.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting Tuesday with the president of Romania, one of Ukraine's neighbors, Hollande said "it is our common interest to get a global agreement" and also stressed the economic "benefit" of resuming normal trade with Russia. Hollande also said he would have a phone call with Merkel, who was in Canada Tuesday, before the peace talks resumed.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France required a ceasefire, rapid withdrawal of heavy weapons, an effective border check between Ukraine and Russia, the respect of Ukraine's sovereignty, and a specific status for the population of east of Ukraine. An agreement reached in Minsk in September had foreseen each side pulling back its heavy weapons 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the lines of engagement. However, battlefield positions have changed since then, and the rebels have taken control of more territory.

Merkel and Hollande would give separatists 500 square kilometers (200 square miles). The proposal would create of a 50-70-kilometer demilitarized zone around the current front line. Other contentious issues include the degree of future autonomy in the east and the Ukrainian government's insistence on retaking control of the roughly 400 kilometers of border with Russia in the separatist-controlled zone.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)